1. A Separation
Some may say I’m cheating with my #1 pick since it doesn’t open in Canada until January 20th, 2012. But, it opens in limited release stateside Dec.30th, 2011, and I got to see this movie in 2011, and since it’s MY list, I’m going to say it qualifies! ‘A Separation’ is an Iranian masterpiece about a married couple who separates and the intrigues that follow when the husband hires a caretaker to look after his father. Both the film’s title and my one-sentence plot description completely understate director Asghar Farhadi’s case, which consists of psychological, social, and moral intricacies. The separation isn’t limited to the divorce of an Iranian couple, but also father from father, parent from child, class from class, and so on. The film is specifically Iranian in the sense that it was made by an Iranian filmmaker who expresses the characters and their situations meaningfully outside the confines of censorship. And yet the themes of responsibility, gender, class, justice, honour, social and religious divisions, tyranny, and truth make ‘A Separation’ achieve universality. Every aspect of the film is perfectly handled, and the family dynamics and scenarios feel authentic, and true to life. This deeply resonant film is perfectly constructed, brilliantly performed, and beautifully photographed. It couldn’t be any more tense, dramatic, or compelling. This is a landmark achievement in World Cinema, and I predict it will remain a timeless masterpiece. It deserves a nomination for Best Foreign Film by the Motion Picture Academy. Please and thank you.
2. Certified Copy
‘Certified Copy’ is a masterpiece of writing, construction, directing, performance, cinematography, editing, everything. Set over the course of a lazy day in Tuscany, the film follows a British writer (William Shimell) and a French antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche). Initially, they appear to be strangers, but are mistaken for a married couple in a cafe. After leaving the cafe, the nature of their conversations shifts drastically. The film’s title comes from the name of a book written by the William Shimell character who argues there’s no difference between a real object and a fake one if they represent the same thing. This idea plays into the relationship of the central characters – are they strangers pretending to be a married couple? Or are they a married couple whose relationship has disintegrated and are pretending to start over as strangers? More complicated explanations about what’s taking place also exist, but I think it’s irrelevant to what director Abbas Kiarostami is trying to say. ‘Certified Copy’ is one of the least manipulative films ever made – it means whatever you want it to mean. Personally, I like the idea of being meeting a stranger and being able to fabricate a 15-year history consisting of fictitious memories. To me, the film demonstrates the power of conversation – what two people can choose to invent between each other. I’ve seen ‘Certified Copy’ three times and my interpretation of the film has changed with each viewing. Juliette Binoche won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in this film, and it is the best female lead performance I’ve seen all year. ‘Certified Copy’ is a gorgeous, through-provoking, irresistibly romantic film about art, fraudulence, authenticity, love, and truth.
‘Incendies’ is a Canadian film that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year and I’m still surprised it didn’t win. The setup is as follows – upon the passing of their mother, Quebecois twins are given instructions to deliver two envelopes, as part of her will. One envelope is intended for their father whom they’ve believed to be dead, and the other to their brother who up until now they never knew existed. ‘Incendies’ is an artful combination of a mystery, political thriller, and family drama. Certain images, including that of a burning bus, will stick with you long after the credits roll. Each scene, which involves a clue or discovery into the twins’ mother’s past, has something unsettling coiling underneath it. The performances from this unknown cast, especially Lubna Azabel, are outstanding. ‘Incendies’ is very stripped down and intimate and we, as viewers, feel like we are with these characters as they unravel the mystery of their mother’s life. Rarely do we forget we’re sitting in a movie theatre (or at home watching a film), but this is a perfect example of a film complete onto itself – we disappear into the experience. ‘Incendies’ is an astonishing, admittedly disturbing piece of filmmaking, and a huge step forward in Canadian cinema.
4. The Descendants
‘The Descendants’ is a quirky, offbeat film about a man, played wonderfully by George Clooney, trying to keep his head above water. His daughters are in full rebellion stage. His cousins (and the state of Hawaii) are relying on him to make a decision about a pristine tract of land owned by his family. He’s also been alerted to the fact that his wife was having an affair at the time of an accident which has landed her into an irreversible coma. This is Alexander Payne’s best film yet (‘Sideways’, and ‘About Schmidt’) which has the ensemble of the year. Every cast member is operating at the top of the game. Even characters that appear for brief moments are memorable. Payne’s film achieves the difficult balance of juggling all these complex emotions and presenting them in a believable manner. The film takes place in Hawaii, and we discover that it’s not all surf boards and waves. These occupants of this state go through the same problems and have the same dysfunctional families we do. The Descendants’ is perfect in depicting the imperfections of its characters.
‘Poetry’ is a heartbreaking film from South Korea, directed by Chang-dong Lee, which won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s about a 66 year old pensioner who enrols in a poetry class while dealing with Alzheimers and is forced to face a difficult decision involving her irresponsible grandson who has been accused of rape. The film stars Jeong-hie Yun, a South Korean star in the 1960s, who came out of a 16-year retirement in entertainment to play the lead role. At no point in the film does ‘Poetry’ devolve into a tear-jerker about dementia or intergenerational bonding. This is a very restrained picture – in fact, I don’t recall there being any music. ‘Poetry’ is a small film, but one that is completely engrossing, and we’re with Jeong-hie Yun’s character every step of the way in her journey. It’s the sort of picture that most mainstream moviegoers haven’t seen, but truthfully, I cannot imagine anyone walking out of this film unsatisfied. ‘Poetry’ will stick with you long after the credits roll. And if it doesn’t split you in half, check your pulse….
‘Drive’ had a lot of people talking about this violent, arthouse action picture upon its release. Ryan Gosling plays a 21st century Man With No Name employed as a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a getaway driver. He finds himself a target when a contract is put on his head after a heist goes completely wrong. The supporting character’s back stories come to life on the screen, but not Gosling’s. He remains elusive. Gosling is able to do so much by doing so little – by holding a subtle glance a little longer than you might expect. It’s this minimalist approach that makes his character so mysterious and compelling. As a testament to his commanding performance, there’s a scene midway through the picture involving a takedown at a strip joint. Even with nude dancers in the frame, your eyes will be focused on Gosling. The film’s director, Nicolas Winding Refn, won Best Director for his work here at Cannes. ‘Drive’ oozes cool – yes, even with its 80s pop soundtrack and its title in a hot pink font. It is a hugely stylish, unique, dazzling, breathtaking neo-noir film whose appeal isn’t limited to fans of arthouse cinema.
‘Shame’, directed by Steve McQueen (yes, that’s his real name) is the first movie in years to receive an NC-17 rating. Michael Fassbender plays a good-looking 30-something year old living in New York who seems to have it all together. Under that exterior though, he has a sex addiction. Like addicts of all kinds, he is self-destructive and goes to dangerous lengths to satisfy his cravings. One day, his sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in, and this cramps his lifestyle of pornography, masturbation, and hookers. Fassbender gives a daring, quietly intense performance that is worthy of a Best Actor nomination. McQueen has crafted an unsexy film about sex. Fassbender’s character doesn’t experience pleasure. The camera close-ups on his face make this clear. This is a man exorcising his demons. ‘Shame’ offers no easy answers – much of McQueen’s film is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Great art is that wish aspires to do something beyond itself. That means bushing boundaries, which ‘Shame’ (pardon the pun) shamelessly does. ‘Shame’ is unsettling to watch, but those inclined will likely find this to be bold filmmaking.
‘Hugo’ is a big-budget 3-D family film with Dickensian overtones from master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan living in a Paris train station in the 1930s. He tries to fix a broken automaton and ends up being involved in a mystery that will change that lives of those around him. This picture ends up being about the birth of cinema and ironically, this movie about the early days of filmmaking is presented in 3-D. This is by far the best use of 3-D, supplanting James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ – Scorsese effectively utilizes the medium to create an immersive viewing experience, drawing the viewer into this fully realized fantasy world. This is Scorsese’s love letter to the films of the early 1900s. With wonderful source material and featuring perfect performances, Scorsese has crafted a film that is delightful, charming, entertaining, and a reminder to most of us about why we love going to the movies.
9. Take Shelter
‘Take Shelter’ is a film about a husband and father, played by Michael Shannon, who has these reoccurring dreams and visions of an apocalypse. He has a family history of mental illness, and wants to seek treatment, but because he fears the truth of his dreams, he builds a storm shelter in his backyard to protect his family. ‘Take Shelter’ is directed by Jeff Nicholas – he has a meticulous eye for detail, and has made a film that excels as both a family drama and a psychological thriller. Each scene is permeated with a sense of dread, and the dreams of Shannon’s character feel so vivid and chillingly real. The lead role in ‘Take Shelter’ was made for Michael Shannon, an actor I’ve long admired, and this is his best performance yet. ‘Take Shelter’ is the sort of film that will keep you guessing until the very end, and even its ending is open to interpretation. It’s the rare sort of modern film that can trouble your sleep, not with CGI constructs of monsters, but with a more familiar dread about our days being numbered by climactic changes.
10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ is David Fincher’s remake of a 2010 Swedish film, which was an adaptation of Steig Larsson’s novel. A journalist (Daniel Craig) and unorthodox researcher named Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) team up to solve a murder which took place 40 years ago. Fincher’s take on this story is what a film adaptation should be: he honours the source material, but presents it in pure Fincherian style. He has a crisp sense of framing, and effectively utilizes hyper-realistic lightning. He keeps his distance, and this focus on the exterior of the characters makes looking at the interior irrelevant. Fincher directed last year’s ‘The Social Network’. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Lisbeth Salander drive people away from them (though Zuckerberg does it with his rapid fire speechifying and Salander does it by being withdrawn, and not saying more than she has to in a half-monotone voice). ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ is tense, brutal, and Lisbeth Salander is one of the most fascinating on-screen characters I’ve seen in a really long time.
Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 50/50, Beginners, Cafe de Flore, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Myth of the American Sleepover, The Tree Of Life, Trust, Warrior
– Jerry Nadarajah